Analyst: ‘It’s very difficult to count on BlackBerry to be around’

November 4, 2013

(Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Anyone watching BlackBerry plot its next move can be forgiven for complaining of whiplash.

The embattled device company now says it won't be selling to a new owner after all, just months after it announced it was looking for alternatives. Potential buyers included Lenovo and the investment firm Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd., the latter of which had offered $4.7 billion, or $9 a share. (BlackBerry's stock price has tumbled more than 10 percent this morning, though it's now recovered somewhat and hovering around $7 a share.)

BlackBerry had previously said it wanted to seal a deal by the beginning of this month. But having abandoned its quest for a buyer, the company is now looking to raise $1 billion from institutional investors. It's also replacing its CEO, Thorsten Heins.

What's to become of the beleaguered phone manufacturer now? James Moorman, an analyst at S&P Capital IQ who's been following the BlackBerry saga closely, said the leadership change will be an especially important test.

"We really need to know the strategy going forward," Moorman said. "I still think the company is viable and has a future as a niche player … if they get back to focusing on enterprise and emerging markets, they can do okay."

BlackBerry has also see-sawed between hoarding its cash and spending large chunks of it, Moorman adds.

The company blew $934 million in the second quarter on unsold inventory, primarily Z10 touchscreen devices that it hoped would rescue its bottom line. It was a huge bet that didn't pay off. Releasing the Z10 before the Q10 — a similar device but with the physical keyboard that many BlackBerry loyalists prefer — was a "huge mistake,"  Moorman said.

While the company still sits on a substantial pile of cash — around $2.6 billion as of August, according to Morningstar's Brian Collelo — the fact that it's seeking to raise an additional billion is a hint that it expects to burn through much of that money simply paying off operating expenses and other restructuring costs. Meanwhile, BlackBerry has left the consumer market altogether, banking more heavily on government and business customers. But even that audience might not last, Collelo said.

"The problem BlackBerry faces now is that it's very difficult for a business or government to count on BlackBerry to be around," he said. "That's probably the heart of the problem. "If it were just a consumer company, a buyout might have been easier from one of the Chinese handset makers or another buyer — but because it serves governments and enterprises with special security needs, it takes a special buyer to acquire these assets."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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